The Grad School Blues

During my first two years of grad school, when I was juggling a full-time course load, a full-time teaching fellowship, and a ghost of a personal life, I got very good at managing my time.  Lunch breaks, train rides, and office hours became excellent moments to squeeze in twenty or thirty pages of reading about Neanderthal developmental patterns or orangutan conservation.  The couch in the department lounge turned out to be a great place to catch up on 30 minutes of sleep following a late-night paper-writing stint and an early morning section meeting.  I even got used to marathon study and grading sessions on Friday and Saturday nights.  It wasn’t always the most pleasant schedule to maintain, but there was nary a wasted hour in my day.  I was going full speed ahead all the time.

Nowadays, in contrast, I frequently feel as if I am drifting on a windless current, or straining against the inertia of an anchor.  Ostensibly, I still have just as much to keep me occupied: finishing the lab work for my dissertation, writing said dissertation, teaching undergraduate courses (more often as an instructor than an assistant these days), maintaining my newly launched blog, and spending time with my husband and friends.  And yet, I find that without the forcibly structured schedule of those first two years, entire days can easily disappear with nothing productive to show for them.

Part of this is due to my natural tendency to procrastinate (one which I have apparently been honing for many years; last year I discovered that my mother once called me “lazy” in my baby book).  But I think my current round of malaise is just as much about the future as the present.

When I started my grad school program, I did so excited to continue learning about anthropology, and eager to design and execute an original research project.  I confidently imagined my PhD conferral as the inevitable conclusion of a challenging but rewarding journey, hopefully followed by a career in a university or zoo setting.  I had no illusions of scientific grandeur.  I just wanted to travel the “normal” grad school path and emerge on the other side with a plan for my life.

Yeah, right.

The ugly truth about grad school, which I think many learn the hard way, is that the “normal” path is littered with countless unanticipated obstacles.  In my case, the 2 largest of these were
1. my original thesis adviser unexpectedly left for another university, and
2. I had to find an entirely new research project after bureaucratic changes at the site where I planned to do my dissertation work led them to rescind their invitation at the last minute.
These were not exactly small setbacks, and alongside myriad smaller problems and disappointments they illustrate that grad school for me has consisted of more “challenge” and less “reward” than I hoped.  This is not the first time I’ve had the Grad School Blues.

“But T.P.,” you’re saying to yourself, “that’s all in the past!  Now that the finish line is in sight, shouldn’t you be full of renewed enthusiasm?”

Perhaps.  But while I am looking forward to finishing my degree next spring, I also find myself reluctant to face the post-grad school reality of finding a job and putting my PhD to work.  Who wouldn’t be, when it is becoming more common to see articles lambasting PhD programs in general, and knowing the well-documented challenges that women in particular face when trying to balance an academic career with a family?

The whole prospect is terrifying.

When I take a few deep breaths, I have no doubt that my present bout of Grad School Blues will pass in due course.  I will overcome the troubles I’m facing in the lab and compose a scientifically sound dissertation.  And I will graduate next spring, future unanticipated obstacles be damned!

But let my experiences stand as a cautionary tale to any readers contemplating a PhD journey — make sure you know what you are getting yourself into!  As for those of you who know me personally, I’ll just remind you that homemade fudge is an excellent G.S.B remedy, and say thank you in advance for giving me a shoulder to cry on if the Blues should return again.


6 responses to “The Grad School Blues

  1. “make sure you know what you are getting yourself into!”
    “for those of you who know me personally, I’ll just remind you that homemade fudge is an excellent…. remedy.”
    I think that you lifted these thoughts from my subconscious. We’re definitely brother & sister.

  2. Miss L, you are so honest and real. I have complete faith in you and I know something good will come your way. I heard an expression once: “opportunity favors the prepared mind.”

    With love,

  3. The end is in sight, friend! And you’re about due some kick-ass karma, so I wouldn’t be surprised you find yourself snapped up by the Obama administration to join the cabinet as his “Primate Czar” soon after getting your PhD. Joking aside, this has been a rough process, but you will be prepared to tackle just about anything when it’s all done. Really, are there any obstacles left that you haven’t learned how to overcome? You’ll be like an unstoppable superhero…the Obstacle-Crusherator. “Take that, Obstacle! *POW* *ZAP*”


  4. I have often wanted to make homemade fudge, but not having condensed milk on hand has always been a limiting factor. You would think that one of these days I would just buy some, so that I can finally make fudge whenever the mood hits me.

  5. I feel the exact same way. I was so productive, ambitious, inspired, and capable when I started my PhD program, now I feel like a complete blob of information I will never synthesize back out of my brain lucidly; in a career where I will never make as much money as I could have straight out of BA in a consulting firm. UGH. I do love teaching though. Sometimes. Well, maybe that’s frustrating too. Oh, never mind. 🙂

  6. Pingback: The Long and Winding Road | The Tinkering Primate

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